Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona
It’s somewhat scandalous that I haven’t written a line on Ingmar Bergman yet, except to note that when his film The Touch failed at the box-office, and he found it impossible to get American distribution for his next project, that producer/director Roger Corman came to his rescue with partial financing and American distribution for Cries and Whispers. So, here’s a word or two in praise of Persona, perhaps my favorite of all of Bergman’s films, although I am partial some of the early work, especially Wild Strawberries.
Persona represented a huge leap forward for Bergman, who came from the theater, and for most of his life, would direct a theatrical production in Sweden each winter, and then venture forth with his stock company of actors and technicians to shoot a film every spring. Persona was to have been shot in the studio, but it almost immediately became apparent that this arrangement wasn’t working out, and so Bergman transported his crew and his actors — the two key actors are Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman — to his summer house on the island of Fårö, where his own house, as well as several local buildings, were used for the shooting,
What sets Persona apart from Bergman’s earlier work is its lack of theatricality; its austere sculptural presence; its plastic uses of the possibilities of the moving image, as when the film rips, or falls out of focus, or freezes; and especially the film’s hyper-edited, deeply self-reflexive introduction, in which Bergman conducts a whirlwind metaphorical tour of his imagistic past.
The set-ups in the film are flat, spare, and striking, and the overall embrace of aberrant, jarring cinematic devices reminds one inescapably of mid-60s Godard, especially with regard to Bergman’s lighting, sets, and his use of uncharacteristically long takes, using a static set-up to record minutes of action at a clip.
Bergman, however, publicly stated that he thought little of Godard’s work, commenting on one occasion that: “in this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”
This dislike became even more pronounced as Godard’s career progressed, when Bergman fulminated that “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a [. . .] bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin/ féminin, was shot here in Sweden. It was mindnumbingly boring.”
But when I first saw Persona, in a screening I will never forget at the Garden Theater in Princeton, NJ, when it was first released (after being awake for some 36 hours working on films and various other projects), although I was dead tired, the film immediately jolted me awake, because it seemed to reflect the influence of no one so much as Godard, in framing, in style, in structure — in every respect.
Bergman’s usually dark and forbidding lighting, his rococo frames, overstuffed with suffocating bric-a-brac — quite intentionally, for many of his earlier films were period pieces — were now cleared away, and the result was that the actors were in the foreground, rather than their surroundings; they created the world they existed in, rather than having it created for them by the sets and costumes. With Persona, Bergman entered the modern world.
Even Cries and Whispers, despite its enormous commercial success, seemed a throwback to Bergman’s earlier films, as if were escaping back to his childhood, and certainly the same can be said of his last films, especially the obviously semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, which to me, at least, was a ponderous bore. Persona, on the other hand, was fresh and new, and I remember thinking, with great force, how much Bergman had absorbed the philosophical and stylistic influence of the French New Wave filmmakers, especially Godard, who shares with Bergman a somewhat cold and unforgiving vision of the world, though Bergman, in his last years, seemed to become increasingly sentimental.
So, what can I say — I think Bergman protests too much. Persona is obviously indebted to Godard, and to the breakdown of cinematic tradition that personified the 1960s, whether he knew it, or admitted it, or not.
Here’s Susan Sontag’s take on the film; see what you think.